The partnership with Hewitt, the most recent of Australia’s grand slam winners, may leave sentimental locals misty-eyed as it hearkens back to the days when Australian men walked tall on the tour at the turn of the century.
For twice U.S. Open champion Rafter, who will return to the A-grade at the age of 41, the feelings are rather different.
Rafter bowed out of tennis after his last match-up with Hewitt, a doubles rubber defeat against France, effectively lost Australia the 2001 Davis Cup.
“Under pressure, I’ll probably choke,” the former world number one joked to reporters. “Expect that to happen.”
Rafter’s Davis Cup tie with Hewitt is in Australian folklore as one of the most calamitous collaborations in the country’s sporting history.
The pair were thrown together for the doubles in a surprise move, with an injured Rafter swapping with doubles specialist Wayne Arthurs.
They lost to Cedric Pioline and Fabrice Santoro in four sets and, amid worries that Rafter’s shoulder would not survive another best-of-five singles, Arthurs was thrown to the wolves and lost the rubber and the Cup to France.
“It was shocking, horrible,” the straight-talking Rafter recalled ruefully. “I was really bad. So my mates are sending me texts saying, ‘Can you please work on your returns?’ I’ll be definitely the worst player in the competition out there.
“But I’ll have fun. I’m playing with one of the best players in the competition. Figure it’s like eating chocolate or having broccoli, sort of equals it out.”
The match-up may be short-lived, however, with 32-year-old Hewitt a chance to pull the pin at any time depending on his preparations for the singles draw.
Australia have waited 35 years for a homebred singles champion at Melbourne Park and battle-scarred Hewitt, in his record-equalling 18th Australian Open, could well go the deepest of the local contenders.
Hewitt has enjoyed a renaissance in the lead-up, upsetting Roger Federer in the final of the Brisbane International and edging fourth seed Andy Murray in an exhibition match at the Kooyong Classic on Friday.
“Eighteen in a row, and in the singles main draw as well,” Hewitt, who won the second of his two grand slam titles at Wimbledon in 2002, told reporters. “I wouldn’t have dreamt of that as my first one in ’97 as a 15-year-old, that’s for sure.
With Hewitt eclipsed by the likes of Federer and Rafa Nadal and struck down by injuries for much of the past decade, Australia has long looked in hope to the next generation.
A promising band of young talents are in the action in Melbourne, but the draw has done its best to ensure fans have just a fleeting glimpse of their potential.
World number one Nadal alone could feasibly swat aside three Australian contenders in the first three rounds, starting with one of the country’s brightest prospects in Bernard Tomic.
Tomic, a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon, has not been shy of making big statements off-court, once forecasting that he would eventually win multiple grand slams.
The 21-year-old has ample time for his talents to bloom on the big stage, but his drubbing in Saturday’s final of the Sydney International by world number five Juan Martin del Potro was a jarring wake-up call.
Tomic, who was swatted aside by Nadal in the 2011 tournament as a teenager, was focusing on the positives of their re-match.
“He’s going to be very intimidating to play,” he told reporters. “You just have to stay with him. He is human. He does make mistakes, obviously not as much as the other players, but I’ve got to play very, very good tennis to have any chance.”
Australia’s greatest hope in the women’s draw remains 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, who has never surpassed the fourth round at Melbourne Park, where her marquee status has contributed to crushing bouts of stage-fright.
Seeded 17th in the women’s draw, Stosur was beaten in the semi-final of the warmup Hobart International in straight sets by Czech Klara Zakopalova, who will be her first round opponent at Melbourne Park.
“This time around I feel fine,” said the 29-year-old. “It’s not to say I’m sure on Monday I’ll be nervous going out there for the first match. A first round anywhere, you always feel that.”
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)